Seattle's last unnamed places

How the city could enrich and rejuvenate its urban landscape by naming its alleys. It's a win for both heritage and sustainability.

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A scene from the Rainier Valley Summer Streets program: Is Seattle forgetting that taxes hit hard in some of its neighborhoods?

How the city could enrich and rejuvenate its urban landscape by naming its alleys. It's a win for both heritage and sustainability.

A place isn't a place until it has a name. As Seattle develops as a city, as neighborhoods get more dense, as the focus on urban design becomes more intense and targeted, what are the the opportunities for giving recognition to new, rehabbed or rediscovered spaces? Doesn't everything in Seattle — the neighborhoods, the streets, the parks — already have a name?

It turns out, no. And I'd like to propose what I think is an incredible opportunity to link our changing, 21st century sustainable city with a chance to deepen our roots, reconnect with our heritage and further shape our sense of place.

The names of Seattle's streets are mostly a done deal. Occasionally, we'll change the name of one, as when Empire Way was renamed for Martin Luther King in 1983. We've also added a small assortment of others, like Mary Gates Memorial Drive in Laurelhurst, named for Bill's mom who was a respected civic dynamo. Or in SoDo, we've honored a sportswriter with S. Royal Brougham Way and a former Mariner designated hitter with Edgar Martinez Drive (presumably a line drive double). But given that most of our street names have been in place for a century or more, doesn't it seem a little odd that the last century or more of our heritage is largely unreflected on the city's face, contours, and byways, and when it is, it's left to a rather random assortment of worthies? Seattle has been a dynamic, busy place in the 100 years since we honored the Dennys, Borens, and Maynards, or chose urban generic names (Main Street, First Avenue) and expanded the tedious numbered grid (145th) for the sake of utility.

Many mature cities face this problem and have responded with "honorary" naming programs, where signs for portions of existing streets appear giving a kind of dual designation. In New York, it's resulted in streets named for Malcom X and Bob Marley; in Chicago, Hugh Hefner and the cereal Wheaties. The downside of honorary names is that being purely honorary they won't show up on maps or as addresses, and they can cause confusion. Plus, like all naming prospects, they can become controversial for being too outlandish, too commercial, or not politically correct. The latter just goes with the territory these days.

San Francisco seems to have done a good job recognizing modern heritage by naming some of its alleys (which, in places like Chinatown, are themselves a kind of tourist attraction) and designating some after contemporary writers. I am thinking about Dashiell Hammett Street honoring the author of the Maltese Falcon, or Jack Kerouac Alley in North Beach near the famed City Lights Books. Both have the advantage of being located near places associated with the writers, as well as the writers themselves who are a draw for cultural tourists. But it adds to the experience of exploring San Francisco on foot to follow the footsteps of local literary giants, be they detective novelists or Beat Generation writers. Most people can relate to them more than an obscure settler or city father.

Changing settled street names is always problematic, partly because it is inconvenient. Many Empire Way businesses opposed the MLK change because of the cost of new signs and stationary. But also, many of the old names are deeply entrenched in their neighborhoods and the community's sense of itself. People are often attached to them, and they too have history. Empire Way was a statement of ambition in tune with the coming of the railroads and the boosterism of the robber barons, like railroad mogul James J. Hill, the "empire builder." A train of that name still connects Seattle and Chicago. Like it or not, it wasn't generic like Pine or Cherry street.

One flaw in the street grid that people have complained of over the years is Seattle's numbered streets. Paul Dorpat, who is writing Keep Clam, a bio "mostly" about restaurateur and Seattle cultural figure and folksinger Ivar Haglund, says that the ever-promotional Acres of Clams owner once devised a scheme to suggest renaming some downtown streets Ivar, Salmon, Haddock, and Halibut avenues. But the semi-tongue-in-cheek proposals were also rooted in Ivar's genuine annoyance that many descriptive named streets had been replaced by numbers, as when Front Street was renamed First Avenue, or when named streets in neighborhoods like Ballard or Ivar's own West Seattle were incorporated into the grid. He especially hated numbered streets. Dorpat quotes Ivar:

With the empty designations for many of our avenues and streets as numbers, we shouldn't be surprised if our children ask, "What does 59th Avenue mean?" How pitiful to have to answer, "Well, 59 follows 58 and comes before 60" when we could be sharing the old stories, not teaching remedial arithmetic."

A city designed by traffic engineers is the antithesis of the organic process of allowing the places where we live to be shaped by the human scale and experience. Cities don't grow in straight lines and sprout numbers. Architect Patricia Fels says she once informally suggested renaming numbered streets to the Seattle Arts Commission. "When I'm standing at the corner of 45th and 40th I wonder at the lack of originality of the early Seattleites, or maybe they were just way, way too practical. Wouldn't it make people identify more with their street and neighborhood if they lived on Duwamish Drive or Richard Hugo Highway or Steinbrueck Avenue?"

Could we begin a process of renaming Seattle's numbered streets? Perhaps, but I think there's an easier, more immediate solution right in front of us, one that won't infuriate street engineers, the postal service, or 911 responders. We can tell stories by naming the unnamed, most especially our alleyways.

For the record, according to Seattle's Department of Transportation, the city has documented an estimated 144 miles of improved (paved) alleyways, and an additional 119 miles of unimproved, meaning there are at least 263 miles of alleys in Seattle. That's a lot of potential room for new names, especially if they are named in segments.

Naming Seattle's alleys is timely for several reasons. One is that it's a wide-open opportunity. Only a very few Seattle alleys are named (Post Alley downtown and Canton and Maynard alleys in Chinatown are examples). Some have unofficial honorary names, such as Roethke Mews (a great pun on "muse" if nothing else) next to the historic Blue Moon tavern in the University District where generations of Moon habitues have included the likes of madman poet Theodore Roethke, author Tom Robbins, and the late historian Walt Crowley. Roethke Mews is a perfect example of linking an alley with a historical figure associated with it: the brilliant, brooding UW poet hung out there.

Next, urban design focus is currently shifting to alleys. There is always the ongoing public safety issue (especially downtown), and they are important for deliveries and garbage pick-ups, but designers are realizing that we too often treat them as throw-away spaces. In the future, they believe we can't afford to let anything go to waste that could be greener and more pedestrian-friendly, and adapted for more urban uses (in San Francisco, some downtown alleys feature rows of outdoor restaurants). A recent Green Alleys competition in Seattle is a sign that local alleys are starting to get more notice as important public spaces. Discovering, naming and claiming alleys could help us embrace and respect these often overlooked resources. Though they're not overlooked in many cities.

Alleys are also an opportunity throughout the city, not just a downtown phenomenon. As such, they present a chance not only to recognize heritage and place in many neighborhoods, but offer a substantial stock of unnamed places so that any city place-name program can represent variety and local attachments, such as naming alleys where important Seattleites actually lived. Bill Boeing first lived on First Hill at Boren and Madison; Mary McCarthy, E. B. White and Merce Cunningham have Capitol Hill connections; Ray Charles was part of the Central Area and Jackson Street music scene, to name but a few.

Then there is the cultural tourism factor. Surfacing Seattle's rich cultural life and connecting with people from the last century, even living people, is a way of maturing Seattle's sense of itself, and presenting a more exciting (and accurate) face to the world, including all those cruise ship tourists who could walk on routes including alleys or streets named for Edward S. Curtis, or Mark Tobey, or Kurt Cobain, or Betty McDonald, or Imogen Cunningham, or Minoru Yamasaki, or Frances Farmer. Believe me, this makes for much more compelling history than rehashing the shenanigans of the Pilgrims of Alki.

In addition, the naming could also help revive old indigenous places names used to describe parts of what is now Seattle. At the end of his groundbreaking work on the influence of Native Americans in the shaping of the city, Native Seattle, author Coll Thrush included "An Atlas of Indigenous Seattle" that he co-authored with Nile Thompson, which includes native names for many parts of the city and its geographic features. The Native American slate was largely wiped clean, but a city renaming project could seek to recognize that white mapmakers were not the first to name local features. The northern tip of Seward Park was called "squbaqst," meaning nose, perhaps referring to its point, and it could be re-dubbed that today on park signs. An example of a recent designation honoring our native past is the Cheshiahud Loop, a six-mile urban trail around Lake Union. Cheshiahud was a Duwamish Chief. The atlas' names and maps suggest a wealth of material that could be adapted to current features.

Once you get rolling, the list of possible names (from the dead and living) seems endless. I asked a group of historians, friends, and mossbacks to make some suggestions for alley and street names and received many ideas back. For a large sample of their collective suggestions, see the edited list here. Perhaps you will add some of your own.

A few off-the-top-of-the-head name possibilities include: Seattle mayors Betha Knight Landes, Beriah Brown, and Allan Pomeroy, broadcast pioneer Dorothy Bullitt, poet Richard Hugo, Indian activist Bernie Whitebear, artist James Washington, Jr., sci-fi authors Octavia Butler and Frank Herbert, bandleader Jackie Souders, test pilot Tex Johnston, newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, the Seattle Times's Col. Alden Bethen, bandleader/politician Vic Meyers, hydro driver Bill Muncey, movie star Bruce Lee, radical journalist Anna Louise Strong, composer of "Joe Hill" Earl Robinson, artists Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callaghan, UW prof. Giovanni Costigan, couturier John Doyle Bishop, hiker/author Harvey Manning, Scandinavian humorist/accordinionist Stan Boreson, poet Denise Levertov, Gits rocker Mia Zapata, Reverend Samuel McKinney, Teamsters boss Dave Beck, country singer Bonnie Guitar, pioneer foodie and author Angelo Pelligrini, artist Jacob Lawrence, Artis the Spoonman, Mother Damnable....

Speaking of Mother (or sometimes Madame) Damnable, she just might be a great starting point. Kevin Daniels of Nitze Stagen, the developer who saved the landmark First United Methodist Church and is slated to re-make the North Parking Lot of Qwest Field in Pioneer Square, says that he'd be willing to name the private alley at Merrill Place in Pioneer Square after Mother Damnable, otherwise known as Mary Ann Conklin, Seattle's notorious first hostess who put the city on the map with her hotel and brothel, the Felker House, located very near where Merrill Place is today. She was said to be able to cuss out customers in at least six languages.

There is, of course, much to mull over, to research, to debate. Re-opening the names and numbers of Seattle's already named and numbered streets for one. But, like the Salish Sea controversy, name proposals seem to have smoother sailing if they leave existing names alone. So, there are alleys, but also other unnamed urban entities. Crosscut contributor Ben Lukoff, a street sign buff, has looked into this and suggests (fodder for another article) that Seattle street ends, park paths, street and utility rights of way, springs, boat launches, and various private spaces (such as the Privately Owned Public Spaces put in by developers to comply with land use codes) are a few of the things on the map that could still be recognized and named. A vacated street right of way at Seattle Center has been dubbed August Wilson Way after the late playwright. One example of something that needs a better name is what looks like the tail end of Madison Street at Madison Park, which isn't officially a street but rather "Waterway No. 4." It's the old ferry landing. It ought to have a more meaningful name than Waterway No. 4.

Ivar Haglund was right when he said that streets should tell stories. It's not that everyone will listen or understand or care, but in shaping a city, the names are a way of weaving place and binding us to it, of not simply finding our way around the terrain, but of teaching us about the city that inspires us and the people it has produced. The names help us feel invested, part of things. They raise questions for which we sometimes seek the answers. I remember as a student being asked to research the background of public school names. Who were Asa Mercer and John Muir? The named landscape is no longer a cold grid, no longer a collection of geographic features, but a living place that talks to us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.